The Orange Prize Longlist, redux: Karen Russell – Swamplandia!



I've taken a break from reading solely the longlisted books up for the Orange Prize, ostensibly due to other reviewing obligations – as well as what we may call, for all intents and purposes, a wandering eye. What can I say. Books come in the mail, Borders stores go out of business and offer dirt cheap prices, I get a couple new reviewing gigs. Books throw themselves at me. They always have. Things happen. Sordid things, not spoken of in polite company, but rather whispered about in dark alleyways, shrouded by mist rising off cooling pavement. Fonts wink a serif eye, parchment-like paper tempts my fingers with satisfyingly substantial-feeling goodness, figures on book jackets hint at a "happy finish."

Anyone else need a cigarette? 

But I digress.

I have yet to report on three more Orange contenders I've finished, one of which I'll cover in this post and one in each of two other posts. I could just cover all three now, and I should be embarrassed for the reason I'm not. And since you're so insistent I'll just admit it: I'm too damn lazy to climb the stairs to my bedroom to retrieve them. There. I said it. And I am unashamed. Well, slightly ashamed, but perhaps not so much as I should be.

This has been the reason I've neglected covering books in the past, now, hasn't it. I'm beginning to sense a pattern, and not an altogether aesthetically pleasing pattern, in contrast to the rug I bought  to add some much-needed color to our living room. The rug bought to add a certain POP! to the otherwise monochromatic theme of cream on slightly darker cream, accompanied by maple-finished Ikea furniture (minus the piano, which is a sort of cherry-colored, dust-covered surface on which to put pictures). Oh, and also to cover "accident" spots put down by our two dogs. Adding a bit of irony to what's already a disorienting digression, now that the dogs can no longer get into that room to defile it, our cat – the newest, and one may hope last – addition to our family circle, adds his own brand of POP! to the aforementioned rug, namely in the form of POOP!

Ah, but he's a discriminating feline! He will only "endorse" parts of the rug that are patterned, and not the solid background color. Perhaps this is a statement on the artistic merits of the rug itself, or his attempts to express his own "pattern ideology"?

How many of you have I lost at this point? To be frank, even I nodded off there for a moment.


There we are.


Swamplandia!  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

  First line: "Our mother performed in starlight."

  The Bigtree family – parents Chief and Hilola, children Kiwi, Osceola (Ossie), and Ava – owns and operates an amusement park named Swamplandia! in the swamps of Florida. Basically, it's a tiny version of Sea World, though instead of Beluga whales and cheery dolphins made to do tricks by professionals,  there are vicious alligators that can rip you apart and eat you alive. There are also cheesy, home-made headline acts, the biggest of which involves Hilola diving into a lighted pit of alligators, swimming in a circle, then popping out unharmed, with much pomp and circumstance.

Another part of the Bigtree shtick is laying claim to Native American ancestry, an assertion with no basis in reality. For whatever reason, they felt espousing an ethnic culture they do not possess makes the whole attraction greater than admitting Swamplandia! is run by mere caucasians. Since Native Americans are closer to the land, thus more likely to have found it necessary to tame alligators, it would make acts like wrestling them to the ground more realistic.

In keeping with that charade, they added on a family history museum containing such "genuine" artifacts as their mother's wedding dress, dinnerware, and a host of other wacky, mostly common household items, the sort of thing you'd find at any establishment claiming Native American culture. This, as well as their gift shop and small restaurant, rounds out the features of Swamplandia!

It's a quirky life, needless to say, but the family is reasonably well-adjusted, considering. The children are home-schooled, and also the employees who help keep the place running. And all goes well, until the sudden and unfortunate death of their mother, Hilola, from a rapid form of cancer. Hilola, in addition to her importance in the family, was also their headlining act. Her smiling face was on all the advertising, all the billboards. She was the reason people came, to see her death-defying leap. Once she was gone the park went into a rapid decline, leaving the family forced to come up with creative alternatives to keep the crowds coming.

But they didn't keep coming. Instead, the family kept sinking into greater and greater debt. Then, a huge theme park opened, very close by. A theme park so much larger, featuring so many more attractions and acts people stopped coming to Swamplandia! altogether.

Eventually things reached the tipping point, and Chief Bigtree left the island, without specifically saying why, but with the intimation what he was going off to do would help pull them out of this pit. While he was away, the older daughter, Osceola, became fixated by the dead, carrying around a Ouija board everywhere and disappearing for most of the nights. Kiwi, the son and oldest child, grew more and more desperate to leave, dreaming of getting an education to make something of his life other than being heir to a failed – and rather lame – family theme park. And the youngest, Ava, wanted so badly to hold on and believe in her father, but her sister was tripping out on ghosts and her brother decided to head for the hills.

Yeah. It's complex. But in a wacky, you're never quite sure what's next way. I wasn't convined I was going to like Swamplandia!, but I wound up absolutely loving it. Alligators and family theme parks didn't sound very interesting to me, but I couldn't have been more wrong.

Hard to believe this is Karen Russell's first novel (she's also published a book of short stories called St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which I haven't read – yet), or that she's only 29. TWENTY-NINE! I'd barely mastered the art of writing checks by that point, much less novels!

I feel sick.

So, the book is great. Karen Russell is great, and here's an example of her glorious prose that makes me feel old and dessicated, dried up and untalented:

"I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the salt white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers. … We stayed on the island past dusk; we waited until the moon rode up over the swamp and the only faces in the windows were our own. That's what "home" and "family" meant, I thought: our four faces, our walls."

Then, a bit later:

"God," I'd whisper, feeling sometimes an emptiness and sometimes a spreading warmth. If a word is just a container for feeling, or a little matchstick that you strike against yourself – a tiny, fiery summons – then probably I could have said anything, called any name, who knows? I didn't have a normal kid's ideas of the Lord as an elderly mainland guy on a throne. The God I prayed to I thought of as the mother, the memory of love. She was my own mother sometimes, baggy-eyed and smiling in the Chief's heavy canvas work clothes in the morning, one of the Chief's cigarettes hanging from her mouth The Our Father and the Hail Mary I'd picked up somehow by osmosis but it was her name I invoked out there, her memory I summoned like a wind I could lean into, and I liked this prayer much better:

Mom, please help me to find Ossie. Please help me to make the net."

So lovely.

There you have Swamplandia!, the book that snuck up on me, surprising me by its beauty, humor and depth of feeling. Again, this is shortlist material. Then again, so are all the nominated books I've read so far. I thought I'd pegged the winner, but now I know I'm nowhere near.

The plot thickens…



Author Karen Russell


  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (February 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307263991
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307263995


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